Thursday, September 1, 2016

Building a Fantasy Language 2D: Vowels

Last post I talked about the IPA and how the IPA has organized the consonants.  Just as important to the sound and look of your fantasy language are the vowels.
In English, we are taught that we have five vowels, “a e i o u and sometimes y.”  Different languages have different numbers of vowels.  A significant minority of the world’s languages have only three vowels: /i/ /u/ /a/.
As I said in the “Consonants” post, in the IPA there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and symbol.  This is critical for the vowels, even more than it is for the consonants.  Think about it—in English, the letter <e> can be pronounced in many different ways—as in sheep, set, neighbor, rate, and more.  In the IPA, each of these pronunciations must be represented by a different symbol.
The vowel system of the IPA is organized based on three variables: vowel height, vowel backness, and vowel roundedness.

Is this vowel rounded?
Vowel roundedness is the easiest to determine.  If your lips make a rounded shape when you pronounce the vowel, it is rounded; if your lips don’t do this, it is an unrounded vowel.  In English, our rounded vowels are <o> and <u>.  However, if you study German, you will also learn rounded vowels like <ü> and <ö>.  Other languages have still more rounded vowels, sometimes paired with their unrounded counterparts.

How high is this vowel?
Vowels are also classified based on how “high” they are in the mouth.  Basically, when the tongue or jaw is higher, the vowel is high.  When the tongue or jaw is lower, the vowel is low.  Think about the high vowel in sheep and the low vowel in fog.  Say the two words a few times: sheep, fog, sheep, fog.  Can you feel your jaw and tongue rising and lowering?
Let’s look at our unfortunate cross-section friend again.

In terms of height, vowels may be high, high mid, low mid, or low.  (Some linguists call these categories close, close mid, open mid, and open.)  In English, /i/ as in sheep is a high vowel, as is /u/ as in boot.  /a/ as in father is a low vowel.  /e/ as in café is a high mid vowel.

How far back is this vowel?
Vowels are also classified based on how far back (or front) they are.  Think about the vowels in bath and father.  If you are from the same dialect region that I am, the vowel in bath is a front vowel, and the vowel in father is a back vowel.  Say them over a few times: bath, father, bath, father.  Can you feel your tongue moving forward and backward?
In terms of backness, vowels may be front, central, or back.  Front vowels in English are /i/ as in sheep, /e/ as in café, and /æ/ as in bath.  Back vowels are /u/ as in boot, /o/ as in boat, and /a/ as in father.

What do you mean, /i/ as in sheep? (or, the Great Vowel Shift)
Many English speakers find the IPA vowel symbols to be rather annoying, as few of the familiar-looking symbols correspond to their sounds in current English.  Yet many Europeans, speaking languages that are cousins (like German) or stepcousins (like Spanish and Italian) to English, find the IPA vowel symbols to be just right.  Why is this?
Around the time of Shakespeare, a vowel shift was taking place in English.  People’s pronunciations of the vowels were changing.  The letter <i>, which originally represented the sound /i/ as in sheep, was now being pushed over to /ai/ as in bite.  The letter <u>, which originally represented the sound /u/ as in boot, was being pulled down to /ʊ/ as in put or /ʌ/ as in but.  All the rest of the letters were moving around as well.  English’s Great Vowel Shift is the reason why English vowel letters are pronounced differently than the vowel letters in other European languages.  (Incidentally, this is why some of Shakespeare’s rhymes don’t work in current English.  They rhymed before the GVS took place, but not after.)
Quick tip: Have you ever studied Spanish?  If so, pronounce the familiar-looking IPA vowel letters as if they were Spanish vowels, and you’ll be pronouncing them right. 

The IPA Vowel Chart
From the official IPA chart!  (Because I couldn’t find all the vowel symbols on my computer.)  For “close” read “high,” and for “open” read “low.”

Note that the vowels appear in pairs; one of each pair is rounded, and one unrounded.  Make the sound /i/ as in sheep; now, while still making that sound, round your lips.  You are now making the /y/ sound, which is used in Turkish as well as other languages.
No known language has all of the possible vowels.  As I mentioned before, many languages have only three: /i/ /u/ and /a/.  Notice that these three vowels are at the corners of the chart—high front and high back and low back.  I do not know of any languages that do NOT have these three vowels.
Many languages have a five vowel system: /i/ as in sheep,  /e/ as in café, /u/ as in boot, /o/ as in boat, /a/ as in father.
Still other languages have eight vowel systems.  Some of them get their additional vowels by using rounding/unrounding, as German and Turkish do.  They use vowels like <ü> (/ʉ/) and <ö> (/Ø/).  Some just make better use of certain areas of the vowel space.  Most stress languages (see my previous post on Stress) have the schwa vowel /ə/ for unstressed vowels.  For example, in the word irresistable, what sound is that second vowel really making?  Ignore the way the word is spelled.  The schwa is often called a reduced vowel because it is always unstressed, and because its lack of stress has reduced it to its neutral mid-central state.  In resist, that vowel can be identified as /i/; but when reduced in irresistable, it has lost its high-frontness.
English has many vowels, including /i/ as in sheep, /I/ as in pin, /e/ as in café, /ε/ as in bed, /æ/ as in bath, schwa /ə/, /u/ as in boot, /o/ as in boat, /ʊ/ as in put, /ʌ/ as in but, /ɔ/ and /a/ as in father.  Some dialects of English have more or fewer vowels than others.  For example, I can’t hear the difference between /ɔ/ and /a/.  Some folks can’t hear the difference between /I/ and /ε/.  Can you hear differences between all the vowels I’ve listed in this paragraph?

Some Other Important Variables
While the IPA chart organizes vowels based on their roundedness, height, and backness, there are a few other vowel variables which are important in the world’s languages.
The first of these is nasalization.  Consider the <a> in pan and in pal.  Start to say each of these words, but stop before you get to the final consonant.  Can you hear the difference?  The <a> in pan is nasalized (pronounced with the soft palate lowered, allowing the nasal cavity to resonate).  The <a> in pal is not nasalized (the soft palate is raised, cutting off airflow from the nasal cavity and keeping it from resonating). 
Nasalized vowels are written in the IPA with a tilda (/ã/ as in pan).  Any vowel can be nasalized.  In some languages, these nasal vowels appear not just before the nasal consonants, but wherever the language calls for them; the words bulita, bũlita, and bulitã can mean three different things.
The second of these is vowel quantity, otherwise known as vowel length.  Vowel quantity refers to the length of time it takes to pronounce the vowel.  Even though the difference between a “short” /a/ and a “long” /a:/ in quantity languages is only a split second, speakers of quantity languages can pick up on these differences. 
“Long” vowels are written in the IPA with a colon /:/ following them (/i:/).  Any vowel can be lengthened except for a reduced vowel like schwa /ə/.  The Proto-Semitic language was probably a quantity language, with the vowels /i/ /i:/ /u/ /u:/ /a/ and /a:/.
A third important thing to note is the existence of diphthongs.  Diphthongs are two vowels one right after another which combine into a single sound.  Common diphthongs are /ai/ as in buy, /au/ as in foul, /oi/ as in boy. 

How Can You Use This Information to Build Your Own Fantasy Language?
Decide what vowels you want to include.  Do you want just one vowel (I would recommend /a/, if you choose this), or three, or five, or eight, or twelve?  Can all of these vowels appear in all positions, or can some of them only appear in CV syllables, or CVC syllables?  (Think about the fact that in English the sounds /I/ as in pin and /ε/ as in pen almost always appear in CVC syllables.)  Do you want vowel roundedness, nasalization, or length to be important factors?

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